I See Georgia: Monroe

It had been awhile.

The Bear Team hadn’t visited a new location since a December trip to Lawrenceville. The reason for this was simple: We were tired! After two years of traveling around Georgia nearly every weekend, we needed a rest.

So, we took one; taking January and February to recharge our batteries. Good time for it too, as the first two months of 2019 were the rainiest in recent memory. But once the calendar switched over to March, and a partly sunny Saturday dawned, it was time to get back out there.

With the promise of rain later in the day, we decided to start small, taking a 20-mile ride down Highway 78 to Monroe. Founded in 1818 as the seat of Walton County, Monroe became the premier cotton producer in all of Georgia in the early 1900s. Today, the town boasts a population of 13,000 people, and is known more for the antique and other retail stores that have opened in the mills that once drove its economy. It is also a player in Georgia’s film industry. Movies like American Reunion and Hidden Figures filmed in the area, and Monroe is the birthplace of actress Francis Conroy, of Six Feet Under fame.

We arrived in Monroe just after noon and set about grabbing some lunch. We made our way to Kaity’s Downtown, a contemporary steak and seafood restaurant on Wayne Street with a catfish painted on the window. Inside, the place was dimly lit and casual, with brick walls and a nautical theme. Ceiling fans whirred overhead, and a large wooden ship’s wheel sat on a mantel in the center of the room.

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We were seated in a booth and ordered the lunch special, which consisted of family style offerings brought to the table. When the food arrived, it was country cooking at its best, with fried chicken, roast beef, and a variety of sides, including mashed potatoes, fried okra, and collard greens.

As you might have noticed from my earlier posts, I’m something of a fried chicken connoisseur. We’ve sampled this Georgia favorite in locales ranging from Macon to Barnesville to Washington. I can say without reservation that the chicken at Kaity’s more than held its own.

Full and happy, we left Kaity’s and set out to explore downtown. Broad Street is lined with shops, and we stopped to check out several, including Monroe Mercantile and Cheely’s General Store, where we browsed items ranging from household goods to art to antiques.

Continuing along Broad Street, we soon arrived at the Downtown Pocket Park. Originally the site of the Bank of George Felker, the building that once stood on this site was mostly destroyed by the downburst of 1993. Only the safe remains. The area was transformed by local businesses and transformed into a park.

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As is often the case in Georgia’s smaller towns and cities, the most impressive buildings are often churches, and historic courthouses. Our visit to Monroe gave us the opportunity to see both.

First up was the Walton County Courthouse, built in 1883 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Towering over the surrounding buildings, the courthouse features a clock tower, a wide front lawn featuring benches and a walkway, a Confederate Memorial, and an eternal flame dedicated to all veterans of Walton County.

Most interesting of all was a time capsule buried under the walkway and marked with a plaque which reads “For the citizens of Walton County of 2076.” What lies under the sealed cement? Only time will tell.

Next up was the First Baptist Church, an impressive structure of red brick with white trim. By now, clouds had obscured the sky, and with a tall, dark tree reaching to the heavens, the scene was beautiful and disquieting at the same time.

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Once we’d walked back along Broad Street, we were tired and in need of a place to take a break. We entered Scoops and were immediately glad we had. This ice cream shop, whose locations we had previously encountered in Madison and Covington, is a smorgasbord of candy, gifts and, of course, ice cream. We ordered a Snickers and a Belgium chocolate and sat at a long counter by the window to enjoy our treats.

By the time we’d finished our ice cream, it was late afternoon and the sky had begun to darken in anticipation of the rain to come. Almost time to head home! But first, there was one last place we had to see.

In 1970, a man named George Pike moved bought a seventy-acre tract of land in Monroe. Pike, an evangelist, planned to build a headquarters for world evangelism on the site. In the 1970s and 80s, the chapel Reverend Pike built grew to host several hundred members for services.

Over the years, the property, named Little Bethlehem, grew to become home to missionary families from all over the country. While followers considered Pike a prophet, rumors eventually began to circulate about him and his ministry. Some locals claimed he would take church members money, leaving them only enough to live on. Others, thinking Little Bethlehem was a Jonestown type compound, insisted that Pike had physical relationships with certain women of the church.

No evidence was ever discovered to support these claims. The church did have strict rules about fellowship between men and women, language, dress code, infidelity, and drug or alcohol abuse. Those who violated this code of ethics were excommunicated.

In 1975, Pike built a bank that operated on its own currency, envisioning a market where members could buy and sell to the community. When a member accidentally used a check from the bank with an outside vendor, the FBI came to investigate. The government concluded that as long as the currency was not used outside of the community, that it was legal.

In the 1980s, the church members began building a house for Pike. Dubbed “The Father’s House,” work continued on and off for years, though the structure remains unfinished due to lack of funding. Blueprints for the house show plans for an additional story and an elevator. Despite the church’s intentions, Pike never moved into the house, instead dedicating it for visitors.

Pike died unexpectedly in 1996. He was buried on the property. His son, David, was the first of a number of pastors over the years as the church changed hands several times. In 2013, the property was abandoned.

Today, Little Bethlehem stands much as it has for the past 40 years. In 2016, David Pike was able to purchase the property. He and his maintain a residence there, and plan to devote their lives to preserving George Pike’s legacy.

We’d seen the gate which guards the front entrance to Little Bethlehem, discovering it by accident on the way into Monroe. Once we found out the place’s history, we had to go there. Since the property is privately owned and occupied, we obviously couldn’t go onto the grounds or inside any of the buildings. But we could check it out from the car.

We turned off Highway 78 and onto a narrow road called George Pike way. The first thing we saw was the star-shaped mausoleum where Pike was laid to rest. The building stands away from the others on the property, in an open field surrounded by trees.

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Next, we came upon the main gate; a white iron and concrete structure decorated with stars and angels, spanning a cracked asphalt access road. The top of the gate has the place’s name in large letters, with “Holiness unto the Lord” in smaller letters. We paused for a moment, gazing at it. It seemed so out of place outside a small Georgia town.

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We continued along, passing the chapel and bank before coming upon “The Father’s House.” The front of the house is ornate and with large stone candles and spiral staircases. A bridge crosses a fountain and pond, leading to the large front door. The whole place seemed forlorn to me, a relic from another era. Despite the presence of a vehicle and a few children’s toys on the lawn, it looked abandoned.

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Soon, evening was upon us and it was time to head home. I watched in the rearview mirror as we left Little Bethlehem behind. The spires of the front gate disappeared over the horizon, closing the book on another adventure.

That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more on Monroe, visit the official website. For more on George Pike and Little Bethlehem, check out the Abandoned Southeast photo blog, which was an invaluable resource for me.

Until later…

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